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Why the Syrian ceasefire was doomed to fail

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

Last week, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria. A rare achievement for the divided assembly. Except that it is no achievement at all.

Russia used the threat of their veto power to exclude operations targeting terror groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham from the resolution. And under that cover, all actors in the conflict can go on to bomb whatever they please.

Since the resolution has been passed, the Assad government has carried on the brutal siege bombardment of Eastern Ghouta which has resulted in hundreds of dead civilians. Iran, and by extension Hezbollah, have taken the position that the groups they have been targeting all along would fall under the exception, so the resolution does not apply to their situation. And Turkey has declared that it will continue its attacks on the YPG in Afrin as before.

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Seeing as all the major players and regional players involved in the conflict are adamant that they will continue to pursue their military aims as before, what exactly was the point of the UN effort?

In the Syrian civil war, the diplomatic overtures at the UN or the Geneva process have a well-established tactical use particularly for the Assad government and Russia. Moves toward a peace process have always been hinted by them, whenever they wanted to lower the defences of the rebels and prepare for a renewed offensive.

But of course, this tactic has long since lost its usefulness. The YPG, for example, have said that they are prepared to respect the ceasefire “while reserving the right to retaliate ... in case of any aggression by the Turkish army”. In other words, nobody is going to lay any weapons down.

If ceasefires had been an acceptable proposition for either side, they would have been agreed long ago. Both Syrian sides in this conflict see this as a fight for survival

Azeem Ibrahim

The power to enforce

The problem with UN resolutions is that the UN does not have the power to enforce its decisions on its own. It requires that members respond to resolutions, for example by becoming the enforcers, or, if they are the members under censure, to cease their activities.

The West has long washed its hands off the Syrian disaster. There is hardly any expectation or credible threat from us to the Assad regime. As for the regime, the Russians and the Iranians censuring themselves for their activities? That has not been a credible proposition since before the first chemical weapons were deployed in the conflict.

The UN passes resolutions because that is what it does. And it is all it can do. But it nevertheless used to have a clear and powerful role in international politics, as a foundation of political legitimacy, of international law, and of universal human rights.

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Yet as the global power system continues to unravel, these things seem to matter less and less in the chaotic power scramble left by the void of America’s military and moral failures over the past 15 years.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Syrian conflict at this point in time is that it still rages on. Almost three years since Russia has become involved, the various factions of the Syrian opposition continue to hold important territory, and continue to resist the combined might of the Assad government, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

If ceasefires had been an acceptable proposition for either side, they would have been agreed long ago. Both Syrian sides in this conflict see this as a fight for survival, and do not trust their opponents enough for a ceasefire agreement to be able to get off the ground. Diplomats in faraway cities can agree whatever they want.

The people on the ground will fight to the last. After the United States and the West failed to enforce their chemical weapons “red line”, things were always going to go this way. And it seems we are yet far from the end of the killing.
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Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

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